Social Sustainability and Community Economic Development: What are They and Why are They Important?
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
This essay is part of a larger project focused on defining and connecting social sustainability and community economic development in order to inform local policymaking to further improve communities’ ability to fully mobilize and achieve sustainable development. While this essay outlines what is meant and implied by both of these concepts, the main forum for this project is through the Wordpress blog, “Nexus Point: Social Sustainability and Community Economic Development.” Follow along with the twice-weekly posts that will explore this connection and what that looks like for both rural and urban communities.
The Importance of Community in Sustainable Development Policymaking
Sustainable development has become the gold standard for policy-making around the world as awareness has grown of the inability to continue along the traditional development path taken generations before us. There is a popular analogy for sustainable development as a three-legged stool, with environmental, economic, and social factors working together to keep the stool stable. However, as it has been deployed over the past three decades, the three legs have not been developed evenly and, thus, the stool is not as even and effective as it was intended to be. Social sustainability has not been given the same attention and implementation as its counterparts, and that has held back sustainable development around the world from reaching its maximum potential.
The time has come for us to fully value social factors as equals and complements to economic and environmental ones, to focus on the social benefit of the individual and the impact those benefits have when aggregated in a community, and to empower local changemakers to bring their expertise and passions to work together for the benefit of everyone in their community.
There needs to be a shift in the focus of sustainable development, then, in order to fully address these issues. Better developing communities’ responses to social sustainability issues is essential to supporting all other sustainable development initiatives at the community, national, and international levels.
As former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” Most of the effective policy solutions to many of the issues that sustainable development tries to address are mobilized on a local level, from community to community. Especially with social sustainability, where the social composition and circumstances are unique to each community, local policymakers occupy a unique position that cannot be replicated by higher governance structures.
What does Social Sustainability Look Like, Exactly?
Social sustainability asks that entire communities change the way they view each other and their community as a whole, which is a deeply held, culturally-determined, subconscious perspective that is extremely difficult to even observe, much less to change. So, social sustainability policies have to address the fundamental beliefs and thoughts that underlie the targeted issues in the community to a degree not required for the other two legs of the metaphorical stool.
In order to achieve this, communities need to move away from self-interested policymaking. Because communities are the prime arena for sustainable development policymaking, local governance structures have to further align to a culture of opportunity for all. Historically, the American Dream has incentivized those with higher access to resources and higher status in a community to act in order to expand their own range of opportunities. It is the onus of these individuals who hold positions of power in local communities to refuse the urge to act in self-interest and to put the well-being of the community first.
This would require a fundamental change in the governing philosophy of a community, a shift in perspective on local policymaking, in order to reach for the full potential of everyone together. A focus on the collective benefit rather than the individual benefit.
But what, then, are the aims of social sustainability, where this new fundamental change would logically go to next? Social sustainability is achieved by building opportunity for all through the various capital stocks within a community together to fully support the continuous enhancement of every individual’s quality of life over time.
The Community Capital Framework: A Lens for Social Sustainability
Historically, social sustainability has been understood through the lens of social capital, and policies have focused on supporting and maximizing the social capital within a community. However, while I agree that social capital is an important component of any community policy intervention, it’s only one piece of a larger framework.
In his book, Toward Sustainable Communities: Solutions for Citizens and their Governments, Mark Roseland puts forth a “community capital framework” that provides a more holistic vision for the capital stocks in play on the community level. Building on top of social capital, Roseland’s framework includes the natural, physical, economic, human, and cultural capital stocks of a community, as shown below.
Roseland’s Community Capital Framework
It’s clear from thinking about these different capital stocks that they obviously do not live in strictly partitioned silos; there is a clear interconnectedness between them all that constitutes where a community stands on its development path and the resources available for future development efforts.
It’s important to keep in mind what the end goal for this model is, as was outlined in the definition of social sustainability above: building opportunity and improving individual and community quality of life over time. All of these capital stocks within a community can be, when addressed and viewed together as a system and network, the building blocks for opportunity for all. They all directly support the generation and expansion of opportunity for those who engage with them, and they are a part of a feedback loop where an improvement in one capital stock creates more opportunity and causes a chain reaction in other stocks, which further fosters opportunities, and so on.
Community Economic Development: Mobilizing Community Capital
This is where community economic development enters into the social sustainability picture, as it’s the mobilizing strategies and framework that lie behind effective social sustainability. Community economic development builds upon its more mainstream sibling, economic development, or “the mobilization of the natural, human, capital, and infrastructure resources of a community to create wealth.” It focuses more on the process of sustainable development as much as it focuses on its tangible goals; it emphasizes the engagement of community members in local policymaking.
The lifeblood of our democracy is public participation. Thomas Jefferson believed it to be so in a private letter to George Washington: “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.” If the citizens of a community aren’t involved and playing a major role in discussing, crafting, and implementing social sustainability policies, they will be mortally crippled from the start and will most certainly fall short of their intended pursuit of building opportunity for all. The only way everyone can improve their opportunities is if everyone is involved in building those opportunities. Through cooperation, we can achieve the type of communities in which we all want to live.
Community economic development strives to reawaken the democracy that we all want, deserve, and know will achieve a better community and society for us all.
Relationships. Relationships are the tracks on which the train of community economic development runs. Relationships between citizens and their local authorities, their neighbors, and the environment around them are at the core of mobilizing social sustainability.
This orientation of local policymaking “requires both behavioral and societal changes (a longer-term project with flexible and evolving goals) alongside quantifiable, shorter-term goals to reduce environmental impacts while improving social and economic outcomes.” Working at the nexus point between social sustainability and community economic development, it makes sense to place the goals of the former as the longer term aims of this new framing of policymaking and the latter as the shorter term goals.
The Canadian CED Network’s framework on community economic development provides three overarching categories for short-term goals that can move social sustainability forward: policies should support individuals, build enterprises, and strengthen communities. It recognizes the need to support the community on multiple different levels, with each level being addressed in its own unique manner. These three levels of focus, tied together through the tangible relationships between them all and mobilized with local, inclusive, and participatory democratic processes, together lead to successful community economic development and, by extension, more fair and sustainable communities.